ROME — At the opening news conference of the 2015 Synod of Bishops on the family on Monday, two leading European prelates said they were waiting to hear the voice of the Church in Africa with “great interest and respect."
When that time comes, one African in the synod hall who’s likely to have plenty to say is Cardinal Robert Sarah of Guinea, who heads the Vatican’s primary department on worship.
In a new book published by Ignatius Press in the United States, Sarah, 70, says that African Catholics are “committed in the name of the Lord Jesus to keeping unchanged the teaching of God and of the Church."
That line has been popularly understood as expressing opposition to any new accommodation on divorce, homosexuality, and other topics that stirred controversy when the bishops gathered in Rome one year ago.
In an exclusive interview with Crux during the recent Vatican-sponsored World Meeting of Families in Philadelphia, he expanded on his views on the family.
“God is at the beginning of the family," Sarah said, who was appointed an archbishop at the tender age of 34. As such, he said, “governments can’t change what family is because family comes before any state or even any society."
The reference, in part, was to moves in some nations, including the United States, to recognize same-sex marriage.
This doesn’t mean Sarah isn’t aware of the struggles families face.
“Families have many difficulties," he said, “because of economic and societal difficulties, the refugee crisis, parents who get divided, children not knowing where their parents are …. War destroys families."
Yet divorce, he said, is “the most brutal thing" affecting families, because it destroys a person who has given all to their spouse.
“This union is destroyed, and so is the person," he said.
Sarah emerged in the 2014 Synod of Bishops on the family as a critic of proposals to relax the Church’s traditional Communion ban for Catholics who divorce and remarry outside the Church, and his comments to Crux suggest he’ll reprise that position now.
Cardinal Wilfrid F. Napier of Durban, South Africa, arrived for a morning session of the extraordinary Synod of Bishops on the family at the Vatican this week. (Paul Haring/CNS)
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Pope Francis delivered a speech, as bishops in foreground listened, during the opening session of a Italian Episcopal Conference meeting at the Vatican May 18, 2015. (AP Photo/Alessandra Tarantino)
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Ghanaian Archbishop Charles G. Palmer-Buckle of Accra, right, shown here with Cardinal Polycarp Pengo of Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, during an interview with the Catholic News Service last May, says he favors allowing divorced and civilly remarried Catholics to receive Communion under certain circumstances. (CNS photo/Nancy Wiechec)
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Sarah expressed sorrow over children who can’t have “happiness and equilibrium" when they have to split their time between their divorced parents’ houses.
Like the majority of African bishops – not to mention Pope Francis himself, who has denounced what he calls “ideological colonization" several times during his papacy, including when addressing the United Nations on Sept. 25 – Sarah believes there are “new ideologies" that destroy families.
“That’s why the Church has to protect [families] so much," he said.
Many prelates from other parts of the world are also waiting to see what the African bishops have to say.
“In the early Church, it was often the African bishops who kept the Church on track in terms on what we really believed in, what mattered the most," said Sydney’s Archbishop Anthony Fisher.
“We might be looking to the African bishops again to do that now," said Fisher, who is not taking part in the 2015 synod, but who said he’s keenly interested in its outcome.
Crux spoke with Fisher during Francis’ trip to the United States. The Australian prelate was in Philadelphia participating in the World Meeting of Families, which drew more than 20,000 people from all around the world, most of them laity.
Among other things, Fisher wondered aloud why European bishops from countries such as Germany, Austria, and Switzerland who promoted a progressive line on the Communion ban at last October’s synod declined invitations to attend the World Meeting of Families.
“I don’t know what that says," Fisher said. “They might have some very good reasons, but it’s surprised me."
At the end of the day, the Australian prelate believes the synod shouldn’t be reduced to a handful of hot-button topics.
“I hope the synod reminds us that [having a family] is worth trying, that this is the way most human beings will find their deepest happiness," he said. “It’s through the joys and the graves that most people get their deepest fulfillment."
In a session with reporters on Monday, two key figures in the 2015 synod predicated that African bishops such as Sarah will be protagonists in its discussions.
Hungarian Cardinal Péter Erdő, tapped by Francis to guide the line of the discussions during the Oct. 4-25 gathering, said that the bishops were “expecting with great interest the voice of the African Church."
French Cardinal André Vingt-Trois said he hopes the African prelates will have the “strength" to speak out, not only on issues of sexual morality, but also on problems families face in the developing world, such as families divided by migration, war, poverty, hunger, and polygamy.
By Inés San Martín